The Most Important Thing I Share With Couples I’m About to Marry

This summer, I will be officiating at two weddings. I won’t be able to do either ceremony like this (though I did once, at the request of the bride. Really.)

Whenever I do a wedding, I sit down with a couple 3 or 4 times — in preparation not just for the wedding day, but even more, the wedded life. Over the years, I have probably married 20 or 30 couples — which has given me 20 or 30 opportunities to help couples walk through the joys and struggles, the challenges and the opportunities of marriage.

But here’s the thing. I’m rarely happy with what we talk about. I am constantly tweaking what I do in those sessions, forever in search of a better way to prepare a couple to share a lifetime of love together. So, after a recent conversation with one of the engaged couples, I went home and immediately sat down and typed out what I want to do the next time I marry someone. This is now the format I want to use; this is the outline that will cover every important detail; these are the subjects that will give them every thing they need to know before saying “I do.”

Except, after I’ve written it down, I come to realize: this isn’t the perfect outline. I mean, why should it be? After all, it wasn’t “the perfect outline” the eight other times I revised it.

And why should I be surprised? For there is no perfect outline to prepare for marriage, just as there is no perfect marriage. There is no way to address every question, just as there is no way to anticipate every question that will arise over 40 or 50 or 60 years of marriage. Instead, I am learning that the most important thing I can do for couples about to step into the great unknown is help them to see that they are, in fact, stepping into The Great Unknown.  The one thing we can say about what marriage brings is that we don’t know what marriage will bring.

Well, there is one thing. The author and psychologist Brene Brown says that her pastor  believes there IS one thing he can tell couples that he counsels: This much I know: in marriage, you will hurt each other.

Sounds like a positive guy. I’m sure he’s swamped with marriage requests.

But I think he’s on to something. And that something is the reality that the risk of relationship (be it marriage, family, close friendship, or even a church small group) is that we tend to hurt each other. And the closer the relationship, the easier it is to hurt each other.

Now, please note: I am NOT talking about physical or verbal abuse; I am not describing harm that must be held to account. I am speaking of the reality of the everyday hurt that is involved when we “do life” with someone.

Even so — even with the reality that marriage involves hurt feelings, hard conversations, and stretches of yawning apathy — why marry at all? For that matter: why get into close relationship with anyone? If hurt will result, why take the risk?

Well, in short, because that’s how we grow. We don’t grow in isolation. We don’t flourish by avoiding risk. In fact, not only do we mature despite the pain and problems that relationships bring, it’s in fact in the midst of the struggles that we grow.

And so, what I want to say to anyone who is dealing with the frustrations of relations (be it marriage or parenting, co-workers or close friends): Relationships are hard; it’s foolish to think otherwise. But through the challenges, we have the opportunity to grow. Through the hard work of learning to love imperfect people, we become more like our perfect Savior. Through the challenge of loving people through the difficult times — and being loved through our difficult times — we become more like Jesus.

Marriage isn’t the only way for this to happen, of course, but it is one way — one that, if married couples will let it, will shape them and mold them in ways that are both painful and powerful. So, even though I don’t have a magic formula, at the end of my conversations with couples getting married, I share these 10 principles — ten guidelines I believe that, if they spend a lifetime practicing, will help them grow (through the good times, and the bad):

  1. Commit to a life time of growing together.
  2. Be ready for it to be hard.
  3. Love like Jesus, trust in Jesus, depend on him to guide you.
  4. Work for unity.
  5. Find an older, mentor couple. (Or, for older couples: Be that mentor couple.)
  6. Laugh together.
  7. Pray together.
  8. Learn to listen well.
  9. Guard your marriage by guarding your heart.
  10. Love each other through life’s changes and challenges.


Take it Easy?

I’ve been thinking lately about the word easy. I like things to be easy. How about you?

I want traffic to flow smoothly, always. (Why does the guy in front of my keeping hitting his brakes?)

I want technology to work the way it’s supposed to, every time. (Argghh, why isn’t the internet working?)

I want my bathroom sink to say clog-free, with no work. (But I live with people who seem to shed lots of drain-clogging hair.)

The truth is: life isn’t easy. And, though I hate to face this reality: It’s not supposed to be. Cuz here’s the deal: most anything that matters is going to require that I roll up my sleeves, get dirty, and do the hard work in front of me.

Recently, I was visiting a member of our church who is in a nursing facility. We sat and talked in the community room, and when I had finished, I said goodbye, and walked to the elevator to leave. I pushed the button, and waited for it to arrive. And waited. And as I did, I noticed that a group of employees had gathered at the nurse’s station, talking. While they did that, there were a number of the residents sitting all around them.

Finally, the elevator arrived and I headed down to leave. As I was heading to the door to leave, I realized: Dohh! I forgot my coat on the 6th floor. 

Why can’t life be easier? Why can’t I remember stuff?

Anyway, I got back to the 6th floor, grabbed my coat (which, of course, was right where I had left it), and headed back to the elevator. And as I waited (again), I noticed: a few of the employees were still standing around, talking. As they did, one of the residents was calling out: Where’s my ice cream? I want my ice cream. One of the workers told her she had already had her ice cream – and basically left it at that.

Why? Because it was easier standing there talking to friends.

Now, it’s easy for me to critique those workers. Because, I, like them, like things easy.

But then I think about the things in my life that matter. Being a husband. A dad. A follower of Jesus. A minister. Tell me again, Jeff: which of those roles that you have voluntarily signed up for, are easy? Each one – as with so many parts of my life – are not easy, and shouldn’t be.

If I’m going to be a faithful husband, it’s going to take work. And anybody who thinks differently will likely get to find out how easy it is to get a divorce (not). Likewise, if I’m going to be the father of 2 teenagers and one young adult seeking to find her way in the world, it is going to be anything but easy.

And how about following Jesus? Anybody find that easy? Well, if you’re really striving to follow him, it’s not going to be. And we can’t say that Jesus didn’t warn us; you know, that whole “take up your crossthing.

Perhaps one of the deepest challenges of all the wonderful technology that has come our way is that it tends to lull us into a false sense that the better life is the easier life. That the pinnacle of a life well-lived is the comfortable life.

Folks, it’s a lie. A lie that goes all the way back to The Garden. And it’s not that technology isn’t helpful (it is), or even life-enriching (it can be). The lie is that we can somehow “technologize” our way to easy – and by finding easy, we find the life the Ancients could only dream about.

I have a friend whose tag line on the bottom of her email reads: “I don’t need easy; I just need possible.”

I think there’s some truth there. We aren’t promised easy, nor should we expect it. But with God’s grace and God’s help, we can expect possible.

So, where in your life are you accepting comfort, when you should be receiving a challenge? Where in life are you seeking to sit still, when you really should be standing up? 

Where are you looking for easy, when you should be striving for faithful?

Stuff Happens

Do you ever feel as if life is coming at you from all different directions? Have you noticed that, so often, family stuff, and work stuff, and stuff-stuff seem to all happen at once?

The truth is — if you’re alive, stuff will happen to you. And if you live long enough, lots of stuff will happen to you. And sometimes, it even piles up. When that happens, what do you do? Well, if you’re like me, you fret over it. You lose sleep. You try to fix it. Or ignore it. Or wonder why. And you start asking questions you can’t answer.

But the truth is, most of the stuff I tend to do when life gets hard is not very helpful. It doesn’t help me navigate the stuff very well, nor does it really change the stuff. So, if worrying doesn’t work; if losing sleep isn’t helpful; if asking unanswerable questions leads nowhere, what should I do? Just sit back and do nothing?

No. And yes.

When the Bible calls us to is patience. The kind of patience that is a sign of the Spirit; the kind of patience that believes the Lord will come; the kind of patience that helps us endure; the kind of patience that inherits the promises. The kind of patience that says: I can’t fix what troubles me. In a way, biblical patience is recognizing what I can’t do. But at the same time, patience isn’t passive. It is a tenacious holding-on to the God who holds on to us; the God who walks with us through the things we face.

You see, biblical patience is a No — and a Yes. It is a No to all my striving — but it is a Yes to the promise that I am not alone. So, when I am tempted to try to tackle my stuff by myself, or run away from it, biblical patience invites me to face it, without fear, but with faith — knowing I am not alone. Therefore, patience is a Yes — to God, his grace, and his guiding presence. And patience is the faith that says: no matter what I face, God is here. God is here.

And where do we most clearly see the “God who is here”? We see that now, in this season — the season of Lent, leading up to Easter. We see the God who is here in the God who was here — Immanuel, God with us. The cross and the empty tomb are God’s greatest gift to patience — because they point us to the reality that God has not left us to face our stuff, our struggles, or our sin, alone. He is here. With us. With me. With you. No matter what we face.

I know I need that kind of patience. How about you?